Joe Walker remains a coach excited about his new facility. Now a year old, the Ole Miss track will host a second season of home meets beginning with Saturday's Ole Miss Invitational. Two other meets will follow on April 9 and April 23.
"We've got three attractive meets," said the veteran Ole Miss head coach. "Saturday we'll have the Arkansas women in here and the Minnesota women. We'll have the Alabama men here and about 12 teams here for a nice meet. We would not have been able to attract some of them in the past."
Ole Miss hosted the SEC outdoor track and field championships last May. A lot of coaches, athletes, fans, and media got a first-hand look at the new facility which was actually still being finished with things like parking lot paving and grounds landscaping just days prior to the big event.
"We've had a chance now to use the facility and expose it," Walker said. "The word is out and will continue to get out that this is a great place to come and compete. Also just as important is the fact that our people here do a great job of making this a great environment for the teams who come in. It's a good southern hospitality type thing that's just hard to beat."
Walker would love to host one of the new NCAA Regionals some day, but that won't happen as things currently stand. He built the facility with that in mind since the NCAA had gone to regional competition, much like other sports, just last year to qualify athletes for nationals.
But the NCAA ruling against states which still use the Confederate flag as a part of the state flag will prevent Ole Miss from hosting an NCAA Regional track meet. Much like men's or women's basketball or a golf championship, track won't be able to host one because of the political situation and statement concerning the flag.
That ruling does not involve sports like tennis or baseball since the NCAA has not penalized sports whose participants qualify their way to hosting a regional – like tennis and baseball do. It only concerns itself in the ruling with teams – like both basketball programs, golf, track, etc. - that might be awarded a host site by the NCAA a year or two in advance.
That being said, the Rebel and Lady Rebel tracksters are very much pleased with their home and what it has already meant to the programs. At the April 9 meet, which is the same day as Grove Bowl 2005, the Florida women will run here as well as the Alabama women plus both teams from Tulane, South Florida, Tulsa, Arkansas State, Memphis, Southern Mississippi and others.
"The April 9th meet we actually go up against the Texas Relays (in Austin) that day," Walker said. "For us to have gotten the interest we've received and to also have some of the teams coming in for our meet going head to head with Texas prove to me that people want to compete at our new facility and to run here. The April 23rd meet is a little smaller because teams are doing more individual stuff and getting ready for conference, regional, and national meets by then."
Walker and staff will also show off their place to high schoolers. Next Friday, April 8, more than 30 schools will send their boys and girls track teams here for the Ole Miss High School Invitational.
Walker said that is obviously a positive in every way – for Ole Miss, for recruiting, for the schools involved to participate at a first-class facility, etc.
"That will continue to grow," he said. "We could have up to 50 schools here for a high school meet. The word is out and schools want their kids to have a chance to run here. There will be teams from Mississippi and surrounding states. I think we have eight or nine schools coming from the Memphis area."
Other schools that are building new and improved facilities have also noticed. Arkansas, a college leader in track, and Auburn, with former Rebel Ralph Spry as head coach, both looked at Ole Miss' new track before building theirs.
"No doubt it's gotten attention across the board," said Walker, now the Dean of SEC track coaches with 25 seasons – 22 at Ole Miss and three at Florida between his two stints in Oxford.
But for him, the best part is that recruits who once would not give Ole Miss a first look, much less a second one, are now visiting. Some are even signing.
"It's all a process," he said of recruiting top student-athletes. "We got some to look our way this year and we signed a couple. Next year more will look our way and we should sign more. Some other schools have had a greater advantage when it came to recruiting. Now we are in the game, so to speak.
"For example, LSU has had a great track stadium and facility for 40 years. They have built their program with that. It's been beneficial to them. Now we can use ours to our advantage."
Walker said just feeling better about themselves and their home and their environment has helped as well.
"It's been beneficial in our ability to coach our athletes," he said. "It's helped the attitude. Our kids feel better about themselves here, and so do we. It's the kind of facility Ole Miss ought to have."
And now, finally, it does.
Billy Chadwick's 4th-ranked Rebels stumbled for the first time in SEC play Sunday. But it was at Georgia. Not a lot of teams win there, although two days earlier MSU beat Georgia in Athens. Of course, it was only the second time ever for State to win over Georgia in Athens.
The Rebels had won three straight on the road in league play prior to that, and Chadwick said it is good to finally be back home.
"Of course, we wanted to win all four of them," he said of the recent road swing. "But what we were able to do the past two weekends was to keep ourselves in position to win the SEC again. We just have to continue to take care of business."
Currently Ole Miss and State are 5-1 and way out front in the West. LSU and Arkansas, the two teams Ole Miss hosts this weekend, are each 1-5. Alabama and Auburn, two teams the Rebs beat on the road two weekends ago, have yet to scratch out a league win.
Florida leads the East and the entire league at 6-0. Georgia and Tennessee are 5-1, while South Carolina is 4-2. Kentucky is 3-3 and Vandy 1-5.
"There's a long way to go, and every match will be tough," Chadwick said. "Instead of 1-5, LSU could be 4-2 at this point. Arkansas will be a tough match for us."
The Rebels and Tigers play Friday at 2 p.m. here, while the Rebels and Razorbacks play Sunday here at 1 p.m.
"We gave great effort (last Friday) to get that match at Tennessee," he said. "At Georgia, they played exceptionally well in doubles. But we felt we could win four of the singles to take the match."
Then came rain. During the outdoor match, the Rebels and Bulldogs had to move indoors. It changed some things and Georgia seemed to gain an advantage. Chadwick said he truly believes had the match been totally outside or totally inside, the Rebels stood a better chance to win it.
So now the Rebels find themselves a match behind Florida in the SEC standings and in a tie with Georgia, Tennessee, and State. The race is about to heat up. Chadwick likes his team's chances.
"Cat (Gard at No. 1) continues to play excellent tennis," he said. "Eric Claesson won a big match at Tennessee at No. 2. Erling Tveit (No. 3) is playing great. Juan Pablo DiCesare has really played well. Jakob Klaeson and Fredrik Aarum are solid."
One of the personnel setbacks the Rebels have had this year is the current loss in singles play of Bram tenBerge, who had played as high as No. 3 in the lineup early in the year.
His left wrist has been so painful on his two-handed backhand that he is now only playing doubles and will have the situation evaluated further to see what the problem is.
"It has really bothered him, and we need to see what needs to be done to treat it or see if he is going to have to play with the pain," Chadwick said.
After the two home matches this weekend, Ole Miss hosts South Carolina on Friday of Red-Blue Weekend – April 8 at 2 p.m. League-leading Florida is also in town that weekend for a Sunday afternoon match on April 10 at 1 p.m.
Then it's the regular season finale at MSU on Sat., April 16, at 1 p.m. The Rebels will be trying to make it 15 straight wins over the arch-rival Bulldogs.
After that, it's back to Athens for the SEC tourney April 21-24.
"Not that it hasn't been that way already," Chadwick said, "but this thing is about to get very interesting."
Press Box Notebook
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